clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Glass Onion’ Keeps the ‘Knives Out’ Machine Rolling

Benoit Blanc’s latest journey may not have the supporting cast or the surprise of its predecessor, but there’s still enough mystery and verve to be a crowd-pleaser

Netflix/Getty Images

Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, the follow-up to Knives Out, is now streaming on Netflix. Read our review.

The not-as-smart-as-he-looks tech guru has become a staple of contemporary film and television, a postmillennial effigy of greed who’s easy and satisfying to set aflame. Think of Nick Offerman’s faux-messianic Silicon Valley CEO on Devs, or Mark Rylance’s knitwear-class billionaire in Don’t Look Up, gifting humankind with a deus ex machina solution to an incoming comet only to obliterate his own mission in the name of profit. To these inglorious ranks we can now add Miles Bron, the fabulously fatuous, self-described “disruptor” whose not-so-subtle resemblance to Elon Musk gives the Knives Out sequel Glass Onion a hissable and timely villain.

“If you think the shoe fits, then they were probably in our conversation,” said Edward Norton about whether or not his character was inspired by a certain Tesla magnate turned Twitter CEO. “But I also think Miles is kind of like the Carly Simon song ‘You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.’ I think a lot of [tech billionaires] will think it’s about them. And that’s fine!”

The bigger the target—or the vainer the billionaire—the easier they are to hit, and if Glass Onion isn’t exactly crackshot satire, it scores enough scattered bull’s-eyes to get by. Like its surprise-hit predecessor, it represents a very contemporary attempt by Rian Johnson to thread sardonic socioeconomic critique through well-worn murder-mystery tropes à la Agatha Christie. In both films, the revelation of guilt and motive is arguably less important than the ambient send-up of 1-percenter largesse—the same debonair class humor that Christie managed on the page without making such a big deal of it.

What makes Norton’s character such an objectionable figure—and such a potentially deserving candidate to be offed—is that his particular brand of innovation comes couched in double-talking hypocrisy. (His inability to use certain words properly is the script’s best running joke, as well as a potential clue to at least one key narrative surprise.) In between pontificating about innovation and inspiration—and showing off his riches as conspicuously as possible—Miles talks about the importance of “smashing the system.” His private island is less a playground than a Bond-villain compound whose endless labyrinth of reflective surfaces indicate their occupant’s boundless narcissism. Everywhere Miles looks, he’s confronted by his own sleek, triumphally smirking image; the visual joke is that people like this, who live in literal glass houses, should be careful about throwing rhetorical stones.

Miles’s other favorite buzzword is “disruption,” which he uses as a term of endearment to describe people who are willing, like him, to live, work, and think on the cutting edge. (If the script had been written a few months later, you could imagine him talking about the need to be “hardcore.”) The philosophically abstract and physically chaotic quality of “disruption” ends up being Glass Onion’s true subject: the means by which the best-laid plans are subverted (or exploded) and what emerges from that wreckage.

As a director, Johnson isn’t a disruptor by any means. He’s a solid craftsman who’s finally found his ideal niche as a middleweight, big-tent entertainer. Earlier in his career he seemed to be striving for the solemn showiness of Christopher Nolan, with the neo-noir Brick as his version of Memento and The Brothers Bloom a retread of The Prestige; there was something heavy about his genre pastiches. But after the faux existentialism of Looper and his polarizing experience directing a Star Wars sequel, he’s come to terms with his own light touch.

The main pleasure of Knives Out lay in its implicit and seductive rebuke to superhero CGI spectacles: Its central mansion-on-the-hill setting was wonderfully tactile and macabre, with all kinds of cramped-yet-cavernous spaces for Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin to move their camera through. Purposeful play with perspective—both in terms of overall intention and character-specific point of view—is essential for the mystery genre, and the good-natured obfuscation of Knives Out ultimately played fair with the audience. It teased and withheld without cheating, and in the character of super-sleuth Benoit Blanc—the unflappable Southern dandy played by a game and comically nimble Daniel Craig—it achieved the rare MCU-era goal of leaving its viewers wanting more. Johnson had created a hero whose eventual return to action was something to look forward to rather than a matter of obligation.

Three years later, Craig’s sly, stylized patter and body language remain extremely funny, and after establishing the character without any real backstory in Knives Out, Johnson does just enough to fill out his hero’s off-the-job lifestyle in the sequel. Benoit is glimpsed chatting from his bathtub via iPad with a host of famous friends whose identities aren’t worth spoiling here (although as a hint about his culture-vulture social circle, two of them were instrumental in the original production of Sweeney Todd). The idea is that, post-COVID, the great detective has been bereft of opportunities to encounter—or unravel—any sort of IRL intrigue, which is he why he jumps at the chance to travel to Miles’s estate as part of what seems to be a fake-murder-mystery party populated by the host’s close friends. Said pals compose a cross section of neo-celebrity types, including an incumbent governor (Kathryn Hahn), a semi-canceled sexpot (Kate Hudson) whose assistant (Jessica Henwick) lives in mortal fear of her boss tweeting ethnic slurs, a Twitch-streaming NRA shill (Dave Bautista), an ethically ambiguous research scientist (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Miles’s ex-business partner (Janelle Monáe), the latter of whom he fleeced out of untold fortunes and is apparently there in spite of her better judgment. The twist, though, is that Benoit isn’t supposed to be there at all. Miles, who’s controlled the details of the party down to the millimeter, seems genuinely bewildered to see the great detective on the premises, though not to the point where he’s willing to expel him from paradise.

At this point, saying too much about Johnson’s plot would be both unfair and besides the point: Suffice it to say that all is not as it seems, and that at least one of the characters besides Benoit has arrived on the island under a set of dizzyingly false pretenses. Setup is key in movies like these, and Johnson gets good mileage out of what is basically an extended overture, establishing the characters’ most annoying (and perhaps incriminating) traits and plenty of reasons why they might individually or collectively wish Miles harm. Not that you have to squint to see him as a potential corpse: He knows how he comes off and uses it as fodder for his proposed game. Where Knives Out’s Radiohead-quoting title referred to the jagged, blood-stained agendas of characters jabbing each other in the hopes of securing a family fortune, Glass Onion’s even higher-end citation of the Beatles alludes to the idea of objects—or people—hidden in plain sight, and Johnson’s best gags make able use of the location’s overbearing, steel-and-glass transparency.

Where Johnson’s direction starts to falter is with the supporting cast, who represent a less accomplished group than the troupe in Knives Out (there’s no topping Michael Shannon as Christopher Plummer’s black-sheep son) and mostly get by with lazy, easy sketch-comedy shtick. Hudson’s un-woke, perma-tipsy train wreck feels exhausted before the end of her first big scene, while Bautista—an able comedian who’s willing to look silly—doesn’t get nearly enough to do. The fact that this rogues’ gallery tilts toward the (alt)-right is par for the course with Johnson’s approach, but he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel when it comes to criticizing reactionary attitudes. Even Norton, who’s obviously having fun playing an entitled prick, fails to find more than one level for his performance. The one major exception is Monáe, who’s got both the toughest and most rewarding role in the bunch and proves up to the task of inhabiting its absurd yet solemn contradictions, switching between behavioral extremes with movie-star aplomb.

Monáe is at her best when acting opposite Craig, with his gift for yoking soulfulness and silliness, and their scenes come closest to achieving the fusion of broad, cartoony fun and bristling indignation at the center of Johnson’s ostentatiously layered concept. Too often, though, Glass Onion feeds off its own anodyne self-righteousness. If the true legacy of The Last Jedi was how it forced a certain demographic of Star Wars fans to take their masks off—to decry Johnson’s progressive subtext as somehow marring their childhood experiences—the filmmaker now seems determined to get revenge, using Benoit Blanc as a mouthpiece for banal anti-Trump sentiments. “It’s a dangerous thing to mistake speaking without thought with speaking the truth,” says Blanc at one point, effectively looking past his wing nut scene partner and holding up an “applause” sign at the audience; at the TIFF screening I attended, the line received a hearty cheer, which, even if it wasn’t the intention, suggests the degree to which Johnson is preaching to the choir.

It’s one thing to want your movie to be liked and another to flatter the viewer into acquiescence. The same goes for advocating, however well-intentioned, for “smashing the system” in the form of a glossy, awards-season Netflix production that’s been designed almost algorithmically for consensus approval. The flip side to the Knives Out franchise’s accessibility is the weirdly bloodless, benign nature of its violence and sexuality: The movies are adult in a mostly neutered sort of way. Nobody is expecting Johnson to make something as explicit or horny as, say, The White Lotus, but Glass Onion still feels like it’s holding back; even though we get a brief glimpse of Benoit’s live-in male lover, the bit isn’t nearly enough to justify an entire press cycle claiming the character is a new queer icon.

Condemning wealthy assholes as deplorables is easy: Recently, Triangle of Sadness—essentially Glass Onion and The White Lotus’s subtitled European cousin, right down to the partial island backdrop—rode the same thesis to the Palme d’Or. That Johnson makes his version of anticapitalist agitprop look positively effortless is a double-edged compliment. As a pleasant, disposable experience, Glass Onion is enjoyable enough, although ideally something made at this price and level of talent would be worth more than a throwaway. Frankly, there’s better and more trenchant satire to be made about a well-meaning, well-connected filmmaker preaching “disruption” and “smashing the system” in the guise of a $40 million award-season Netflix comedy. As to who’d have the guts to make a movie like that, well, that’s a mystery worthy of Benoit Blanc himself.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.